On July 29, 2020, the Union Cabinet approved the National Education Policy (NEP) that aims to overhaul the country’s education system and was launched on the same day, without a discussion in the Parliament. It replaces 34-year-old National Policy on Education framed in 1986. The mission of the new policy is to create ‘an education structure that contributes directly to transforming the country, providing high-quality education to all, and making India a global knowledge superpower’.
It has received well-deserved applause in the official circle; however, the truth is that it has failed to come to grip with the main crisis of education: Being in school is not the same as learning.
The post analyses whether the new education policy will help to improve the present dismal education outcomes which have been creating obstructions in using the demographic dividend?
India is currently in a youth bulge phase in which inclusive, high-quality education is of utmost importance for its prosperity. India is home to a fifth of the world’s youth. Half of its population of 1.4 billion is below the age of 25, and a quarter is below the age of 14. India’s young population is its most valuable asset. It provides India with a unique demographic advantage. But this opportunity will be lost without proportionate investment in human capital formation.
Human capital refers to the knowledge, skill sets, and experience that workers have in an economy. The skills provide economic value since a knowledgeable workforce can lead to increased productivity thus prosperity.
A study conducted by the USAID (2018) in seven states of India shows that the very foundation of learning that is ‘reading skills’ is very poor. More kids are in school, but most can’t read even mother tongue. According to the findings, oral reading fluency in the mother tongue in Class 2 is zero for 76% in UP, 62% in Rajasthan and 53% in Karnataka. Currently, India is facing a learning crisis. While India has significantly increased access to education, being in school is not the same thing as learning.
Across the country, millions of children reach young adulthood every year without even the most basic skills like calculating the correct change from a transaction or understanding a bus schedule — let alone building a fulfilling career or educating their children properly.
“As such, Pratham’s annual review of school education will make you cry. Language and mathematical skills are miserable: only half our Class 5 students can read Class 2 texts; a mere 40 per cent in Class 8 can do long division”, said Kanti Bajpai, Professor at National University of Singapore. Further, India’s 15-year old children ranked 73rd out of 74 countries in the international PISA test-2009 of reading, science and arithmetic (just ahead of Kyrgyzstan). The UPA government was so embarrassed – it banned the test.
With primary school enrollment reaching around 97 per cent since 2009, the problem is now of quality, not that of numbers. More than half of India’s students can be classified as functionally under-educated or simply half-educated, and they are mainly from the poorer sections of the society studying in public schools. India has failed miserably in translating schooling into genuine learning.
And, there is no wonder that the World Bank ranked India at 115th out of 157 countries on the Human Capital Index in 2018. HCI seeks to measure the amount of human capital that a child born today can expect to attain by the age of 18. According to its parameters, a child born in India today will only be 44 per cent as productive as she could have been if she had enjoyed quality education and full health as well as a better living environment including water and sanitation.
It means about 56 per cent of children born today in India will lose more than half their potential lifetime earnings because governments are not currently making effective investments in their children to ensure a healthy, educated, and resilient population ready for the workplace of the future. The World Bank placed India at a lower position (115) than Sri Lanka (74), Nepal (102) and Bangladesh (106) based on parameters like education, health and sanitation.
As a result, for the first time since 2012, there is not a single Indian entry in the world’s top 300 higher learning institutes, as per the Times Higher Education’s 2020 rankings. The Indian Institute of Science (IISC) in Bengaluru—the only Indian entry in the top 300 last year—dropped into the 301-350 group. IITs in Mumbai, Delhi and Kharagpur have been placed in the 401-500 ranking bracket. Similarly, Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University was ranked in the 601-800 grouping, though it is number one among central universities in NIRF 2020 rankings and is next only to IISC.
It appears that without taking the current state of education, as noted above, the NEP-2020 hastily decided its vision: “An education system rooted in (the) Indian ethos that contributes directly to transforming India, that is Bharat…making it into a global knowledge superpower (or a Vishwaguru) with truly global citizens.”
To achieve the vision, the policy envisages that the current curricular and pedagogical structure of school education will undergo a thorough change to meet the developmental needs and interests of school children for their development at different stages. The NEP 2020 will give a thrust on Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE). It will replace the 10+2 structure of school curricula by a 5+3+3+4 curricular structure corresponding to ages 3-8, 8-11, 11-14, and 14-18 years respectively. The 5+3+3+4 structure will comprise 12 years of school and three of Anganwadi or pre-school.
However, it does not clarify how it will be achieved. In place of this, it uses jargon or specialized technical terminology to confuse us and at the same time try to convince us that the new education policy envisages very ambitious and fundamental education reforms.
There is no logic, however, to the clubbing of primary classes 1 and 2 with ECCE, run in anganwadis (whose workers are not professionally trained teachers) and in elite pre-primary schools. Similarly, clubbing classes 9-12 allows an early diversion into vocational courses of those not considered ‘able’ for more sought-after academic courses. Vocational education, however, needs creative and credible courses developed with some inputs of education, not just skills designed by the industry, as per Professor Rampal, the former dean, Faculty of Education, Delhi University.
It appears that the policy could not figure out the real purpose of education. The main function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Also, the new policy focuses on multilingualism. It will give emphasis to all Indian languages, and children by learning through their mother tongue, will be benefitted, thus contributing towards the growth of the society as well as the so-called quality of education, the policy noted. No doubt, the available research says, if students study in their mother tongue in early stages, it will help them in their cognitive development. One can argue that most Chinese, Japanese and many other countries where people do not know English but are far ahead of us in this globalised world. It is mainly that they have only one main language not like us.
If implemented, it will harm India’s prospect of progress. It is because, the constitution recognizes 22 regional languages, which include Hindi but not English, as scheduled languages, that is not to be confused with the official status of the Union. Hindi and English are the only two languages mentioned on the Indian passport. I, therefore, recommend that the revised three-language formula should be adopted with a slight modification. Education in mother tongue with English as a second language to start with and any other major regional languages after 5th grade would be ideal. Looking at the importance of Hindi, I am sure that non-Hindi speaking children will take Hindi as a third language.
Also, the new education policy is silent about the issue of public/government schools. India’s public elementary schools are in deep crisis. Begin with enrolments. Nationally, the number of public schools has remained almost unchanged between 2010-11 and 2017-18. But the number of students has declined from 126.2 million to 102.3 million — a reduction of 23.9 million students. But still, the majority of students study in government schools where poor and vulnerable students study for free until the age of 14. As per the Education Ministry data, 65.2 per cent of all school students in 20 states used to go to the public schools in 2017.
Large numbers of primary schools are single-teacher schools. Also, teachers lack passion, accountability or commitment, are absent half the time, and so educational outcomes remain dismal year after year in Pratham surveys. As a result, even very poor people pull children out of free government schools and put them in expensive private schools that are scarcely better but give desperate parents some hope whereas most of the government schools give none.
As such, the new education policy would have to take cognizance of this situation. However, the policy emphasises and recognises the importance of private schools and intends to make it easier to establish new ones. One is forced to conclude that the new education policy is proposing the closure of the public schools since it is ‘silent’ on universalizing school education and RTE.
If we want to enhance the process of human capital, we can’t neglect the public schools. It will freeze the prospect of more than half the population, who are poor and sending their children to the public school since they are free and have the best teachers looking to their selection process. To overcome the crisis, the first point to recognise is that hiring more teachers is not the solution. Instead, we need to begin involving the panchayat raj system in managing the public schools, as argued in my recent work.
Indeed, India still is very much a low-productivity economy. For India to graduate to a high-productivity economy, it will be essential to undertake a wide array of reforms to expedite the process of human development with special reference to the disadvantageous section of the society. As such, I was expecting from the new education policy that it will suggest some bold and doable steps in revamping the teaching but what I found as it is generally expressed in a popular Hindi saying, khoda pahaad nikalee chuhiya (dug up a mountain to find only a mouse).
In sum, the government doesn’t require a policy. It requires a clear-cut defined action plan because what’s missing in education is the action on the ground. By and large, the diagnosis and prescriptions are available. Therefore, I agree with Anil Swarup, former secretary for school education and literacy, that we need an action plan rather than a policy statement on education.
It is no secret that the PM Modi wants to leave a legacy. Education reform could be his greatest legacy. He has the energy, intelligence and political shrewdness to bring change.